The Matrix: Path of Neo
Waaaaaaaaake uuuuuuuuuuup! Wake! Uuuuuuuuuuuuup!
Here's what I don't get about Enter The Matrix: It wasn't about Neo because Neo is too powerful. Too powerful for what? Too powerful to be a videogame character? Don't we, um, routinely withstand the organised might of entire armies when we take on the mantle of an ordinary-guy-with-nothing-to-lose? I've been rookies-on-the-force with nought but a handgun and an entire drugs cartel out to get me, and emerged a cigar-smoking, rocket-launching, bullet-dodging lunatic standing on a mountain of erstwhile goons. We are programmed to overlook the average lead's implausible capacity for violence and utterly ludicrous resilience in the face of everything from headshots to head-stomps from 90-foot robot-dragons. So Neo can punch people 10 times a second, jump between skyscrapers and take on two hundred Hugo Weavings simultaneously. That rules him out of the running for the latest vacancy under my thumbs how, exactly? It sounds more like he inquired about the room in my PS2 and then turned up with a reference from Kurosawa and a character statement from Doomguy. He's made for this life.
And so it proves in The Path of Neo, which follows him from "Wake up Neo" to machine city.
When Neo runs up someone's torso and delivers a skull-crushing volley to the face in slow motion, it ticks the box next to "true to source material" and the one next to "suitable videogame moment" so quickly you'd swear it was using two pens. When he cuts down an enemy with a samurai sword, and then without even turning fires the blade into the chap behind him and then boots him off it again before spinning into a roundhouse to someone's slacking jaw, you don't even have to suspend your disbelief. It's meant to be like this.
Where Path of Neo succeeds most is in the collusion of combat control and spectacle. Of course you can't expect to throw every punch, land every kick or parry every attack. What you can expect is to feel like the force behind every flurry, the crankshaft behind every windmill pole-attack, and the momentum behind every combination. There's a very solid base of push and pull here, as there is in any fighting game; it's just that here your exertions are amplified accordingly, and evasion is practically capoeira.
Building up gradually over the course of various tutorials - filling in the blanks between that spike-to-the-back-of-the-head moment and "I know Kung Fu" - and at predetermined intervals in-game, the combat system develops from the initial hapless 'shove', to three-hit kick combos and the occasional run-up-someone's-face to a devastating arsenal of uppercuts, aerial attacks, sword-slashes, roundhouses, and more recognisable moves than you'd find flicking through Hello!'s celebrity housing special.
The way it all dovetails together, the enormous variety of outcomes that key into every combat context, and the way, Killer Instinct-like, that it distils the spectacle into basic combos and simple prompt-response button jabs is enormously satisfying - both to watch and do. There's so much that you can do, and so much that can play out above and beyond that, that repetition of motions doesn't necessarily mean repetition of outcome - particularly when you start to make use of the slow motion element, Focus, which acts as a modifier, as well as framing the finishing moves more excitingly, and allowing you to activate things like Bullet Dodge and, later, Neo's Force-like ability to stop bullets in mid-air and redirect them. And, brilliantly, whenever you round off an awesome combo, the final attack is couched in slow-mo while you're able to spin the camera angle round with the right stick in real-time. Nay - Bullet Time. Inspired.
The initial purely tutorial-based section is perhaps overlong, and certainly full of missteps, but even this isn't without its standout moments. As you'd expect, it peaks in hand-to-hand - when you reach for the wooden poles in the Morpheus dojo-construct fight, you can tell where the game's strengths truly lie.
What's utterly, utterly depressing, however, is that this is virtually the only place they lie.
Outside of the kicking-people-in-the-face, the way the game uses film material is variously awkward, bizarre and outright crap. The use of actual film footage is the most obviously demented thing. Instead of simply peppering it throughout in order to bind the interactive elements together, it's spliced together in montages that cut back and forth, often to split-second glimpses of things that you won't actually do for another half an hour and tries to give you a sense of Neo's... well, actually I have no idea what it's trying to do. It certainly doesn't do anything useful, like tell the story.
Elsewhere, the way the film crosses over with in-game events often feels forced and rarely comes off. The rooftop sequence, home to one of the most iconic moments in the entire trilogy, is dreadful. Having acquired Bullet Dodge and established that you're meant to do the lean-back-and-get-your-thigh-grazed thing to dodge an agent's bullets while Trinity caps him in the side of the head, you discover that creating those circumstances is fraught with difficulty. You'll go into Bullet Dodge when you shouldn't, or Trinity will be too busy clubbing the agent with her fists to actually fire, and all the while that "Trinity! ... Help." sample is played for every attempt. Then, er, you have to do the same thing again, first wiping out SWAT reinforcements so the agent won't be able to immediately respawn. Which, when more reinforcements arrive, he, er, does. Trinity! Help. Then you get to take a ride on the chopper and use your mini-gun to liberate Morpheus. But only after you've gone through a tedious on-rails shooting gallery exercise. TRINITY. HELP.
Away from the main filmy bits, your missions don't so much draw out the superfluous sequences as strap them to a rack and stretch them to breaking point. When Trinity, Neo, et al escape just after Morpheus is captured, they do so through the sewers, fighting identikit enemies in identikit rooms, accessed after you've done an identikit blow-up-the-doorway-with-a-detpack-under-duress.
Sometimes it moves into areas unexplored by the film. Like Neo's extraction of troubled souls in-between The Matrix and Reloaded. The characters you help out are similar to the subjects of some bits of The Animatrix, for anyone who's seen that. Elsewhere the game colours certain details like the extraction of the Captains after the early-in-Reloaded meet-up. Since you're Neo, and not a fly on various walls, you miss out on most of the freeway fun with Trinity and Morpheus, but there's still lots for you to do - and in this area of the game it splits the missions into little clumps so that you can tackle them in your preferred order.
Problem is, the missions it sets up are contrivances. Set-pieces are telegraphed and then executed according to specific instructions. This is true of the game as a whole, in fact - there's no sense of really discovering Neo's powers yourself, and there's little opportunity to really discover anything within the levels either. At the merest hint of ambiguity, the game grabs you by the arm and tells you what to use or blow up. If a door needs blocking, you're told which support to shoot out with your gun.
Guns are something you probably expected to hear about sooner. Their presence down here in the guts of the review ought to be telling and, indeed, they're mostly just plain annoying or superfluous. The gun tutorial itself demonstrates camera and control issues. Fortunately you don't need them often, but I can't really forgive the fact that what ought to be their moment of triumph, the lobby scene, is one of the weakest levels of the whole lot as a result of their shortcomings.
For a game based on a film trilogy that rapidly descended into style over substance [revisionist! - Ed], Path of Neo presents itself awkwardly, and takes an age to get going. The opening sequences - a dreamy facsimile of the lobby scene, and a stealthy scamper through the halls of Neo's office building, leave you confused and bemused. You simply can't get a handle on the lobby action, because you don't know enough, and yet you will learn about it just fine. It comes off as utterly pointless. And the stealth is terrible - lots of clunky leaning-against-the-wall and manoeuvring to hotspots in accordance with Morpheus' galling enunciation. "Move arROOUUnd the desk." You move, you bald-headed dimwit! Where's MY freaking chopper?
There are moments when it has a good idea. Being able to change the course of the film by escaping Neo's office instead of surrendering alters events slightly. It's something you don't have to do, but you'll want to see what happens. It's a frantic, often perilous climb to the roof followed a frenzied descent, racing past the menace of an agent and barrelling over guards in an attempt to reach the exit. But these film-breaking bits are all too rare and often poor. Yes, you can opt for the blue pill, but nothing interesting happens. You just reload the level.
Even so, sometimes, even the set-pieces work. When Neo's trapped in a room with an agent he can't kill yet, and his guns are off-limits because he's holding the detonator for a nearby explosive charge, the only option is to hold out until the others can break through and he can leap an enormous, surely impassable void - blowing up the charges behind him simultaneously. The adrenaline really surges as it looks like you won't make it. Indeed, what happens seems absurdly implausible. "Ok, maybe you do know kung fu," Switch quips. But there's simply not enough of this. "Hm, upgrades" - surely the funniest line in the whole of the second film - is virtually the only other chucklesome moment. Most of your fun has nothing to do with the film's events - it's about creating your own action set-pieces, a bit like FEAR does.
Despite Shiny's repeated proud boasts, it's technologically hamstrung in places too, and glitchy to boot, with characters sometimes switching positions inexplicably. Now, they said normal mapping couldn't be done on the PS2. Maybe it just shouldn't be. The game throws vital frames away at the expense of its technical ambition with a foolhardy degree of recklessness. It's very impressive to see pillars fracture, bells fall out of the roofs of churches, blossom fluttering through a studio apartment and Neo's fists cutting through shafts of light as beautifully wasteful texture quality around him falls into real-time shadow, and it's nice to see every pixel putting some time in during a Chinatown slug-fest, but it's not entirely necessary. It doesn't quite work either - the textural detail looks grainy at any distance, and no amount of crafty lighting algorithms can mask Neo's triangular knuckles. No wonder people don't get up when he punches them...
Fortunately, the fighting animations are superb. And that's really what it's all about - it's a game that exists to make you feel superhuman and cool. It deserves credit for delivering that in combat. Neo's abilities are empowering, and the balance between The One and the many red-shirts is just about right. Some of the ways it achieves this outcome are obvious: the enormous variety of context-sensitive moves, the carefully choreographed kung fu animations. Some are less so, like the way the AI SWAT teams won't shoot you if you're engaging one of them hand to hand.
It's never going to score too highly. What with the technical issues, the contrived mission design, the awful film editing, the animation glitches, the awkward gunplay, the restrictive camera, the handholding, the slow start, the inconsistent checkpointing, the mishandling of key events, and the ludicrous manner in which the Wachowski brothers actually walk into the game and present the alternative end sequence.
But, as I sit here convincing myself it's rubbish on account of all this, I realise that I genuinely have enjoyed playing it enormously. The combat may lack depth in skill terms - certainly you wouldn't compare it to something like Ninja Gaiden in terms of technique - but in the end Neo's the perfect embodiment of stuff you want to and now can do in a game. It's just the Path that's the problem.